North Korea has confirmed 15 more deaths and hundreds of thousands of additional patients with fevers, as it mobilises more than a million health and other workers to try to suppress the country’s first Covid-19 outbreak, state media reported on Sunday.
After maintaining a widely disputed claim to be Covid-free for more than two years, North Korea announced that it had found its first Covid-19 patients on Thursday.
It has said a fever has spread across the country "explosively" since late April but hasn’t disclosed exactly how many Covid-19 cases it has found.
The additional deaths reported on Sunday took the country’s reported fever-related fatalities to 42. The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) also reported that another 296,180 people with fevers had been tallied, taking the reported total to 820,620.
Experts say North Korea lacks the diagnostic kits needed to test a large number of suspected Covid-19 patients.
The outbreak has triggered concern about a humanitarian crisis in North Korea because most of the country’s 26 million people are believed to be unvaccinated against the virus and its public health care system has been in shambles for decades.
Some experts say North Korea might suffer huge fatalities if it doesn’t immediately receive outside shipments of vaccines, medicines and other medical supplies.
“Without Covid-19 test kits, North Korea is resorting to body temperature checks to guess at infections. But with such a very inferior and inaccurate method of examination, it’s impossible to find asymptomatic virus carriers and control viral surges,” said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.
“As North Korea's [suspected] Covid-19 infections are explosively increasing, its death toll is expected to continue to rise."
Since Thursday, North Korea has imposed a nationwide lockdown to fight the virus. That could further strain the country’s fragile economy, which has suffered in recent years due to sharply reduced external trade caused by pandemic-related border shutdowns, punishing UN economic sanctions over its nuclear program and its own mismanagement, observers say.
During a meeting on Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described the outbreak as a historically “great upheaval” and called for unity between the government and people to stabilise the outbreak as quickly as possible.
KCNA said Sunday that more than 1.3 million people have been engaged in works to examine and treat sick people and raise public awareness of hygiene. It said everyone with fevers and others with abnormal symptoms was being put in quarantine and treated.
The new agency said the elevated pandemic response includes the establishment of more quarantine facilities, the urgent transportation of medical supplies to hospitals and increased disinfection efforts.
“All provinces, cities and counties of the country have been totally locked down and working units, production units and residential units closed from each other since the morning of May 12 and strict and intensive examination of all the people is being conducted,” KCNA said.
Of those with symptoms, 496,030 have recovered, while as of Saturday 324,455 were still receiving treatment, KCNA reported, citing the country’s emergency epidemic prevention centre.
Despite the outbreak, Kim has ordered officials to go ahead with planned economic, construction and other state projects, a suggestion that authorities aren’t requiring people to confine themselves at home.
Hours after it admitted its virus outbreak Thursday, North Korea even fired ballistic missiles toward the sea in a continuation of its recent streak of weapons tests.
South Korea and China have offered to send vaccines, medical supplies and other aid shipments to North Korea, but Pyongyang hasn’t publicly responded to the overtures.
North Korea previously rebuffed millions of doses of vaccines offered by the UN-backed Covax distribution program amid speculation that it worried about possible side effects of vaccines or international monitoring requirements attached to those shots.